Coming to Berlin caused my attention to drift to a small part of my life I know little about, and fills me at times with a sense I am an interloper. Through Neukölln and Wedding I see old Turkish women, in their long coats and scarves, short and slightly rotund. I fly to Brussels just as the government, itself in tatters and unable to decide on any issue of serious importance decide to ban the burqa and niqab.
I am a feminist too. I spend time in my two favourite ‘B’ cities, and come from a country, no, three countries, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, where multiculturalism, immigration, assimilation and other such words denote the irruption of the Other into colonial, European culture. Coming to New Zealand from Canada I felt I’d left civilisation to arrive where white was normal, Maori were just going to end up in jail and the Asians received grudging though suspicious respect for being over-achievers. Over time, the Antipodean pair – perhaps Australia more so – thanks to successive waves of immigrants and refugees became a place for me where sitting on a full tram meant everyone was a minority.
This is both the naïve face of multiculturalism and its point. I come to Berlin. Multiculturalism and tolerance are evinced by the populations of old west and east European countries. And then there are the Muslims. I don’t understand so well here the history that bought small pockets of Asian and African migrants to the city, but those from Turkey by comparison have much in common with Greeks and Italians in Australia, post-war looking for a better life.
In one country – and I generalise atrociously here, I am neither historian nor anthropologist – to be a migrant is to be a citizen, it is a normal state, albeit a complex and unresolved one, as illustrated by the question, ‘So, where do you come from?’ aimed not infrequently at those not sufficiently white, even if they happen to be descendants on Cantonese miners from the mid-1800s. In another, only in last decade have laws changed significantly to grant such nationality to those (and their children) not of the blood of the land.
I am expected to regard Islam and Purdah as fraught spaces where identity and ideology is fought. I am expected to do this from certain positions which afford me the place of not-Other. As one who is a descendant of Europeans and coming from a string of colonial outposts, I am granted a certain status as within. This status implicitly includes a codex I might loosely describe as the European project, a very modernist, enlightenment one of hope, progress, and emancipation. As a woman, likewise. As one whose lovers tend to be queer in a fashion that even unsettles those with whom I nominally share this inner space, likewise again.
And what if I were to be an interloper? What if my very pale skin, pristine heritage – both by blood and nationality, perfect english mixed to the point of beguiling post-nation-state internationalism, what if all this hid something revolting? What if it turns out I am the Other, and in this conversation of Islam in Europe, I, who by virtue of my identity and politics should be a natural conspirator in defining Them in opposition to Us, usurp the debate like a terrorist on a plane by saying…
“My grandmother was Turkish Muslim.”
“Oh, that’s why she couldn’t stay with you, because the kitchen wasn’t Halal.” A conversation in Melbourne at a café in Burke St Mall, the alley beside the former Post Office, perhaps early 2006, I suppose I was in Melbourne making hell. We are talking about where I grew up in Toronto, Eaton Ave. I had proved to myself when in Toronto a couple of years earlier that I had lived there and it wasn’t some invented memory by walking from home to school, remembering the route through parks, down streets, around corners. Now sitting at this table I am perhaps inventing a new memory of two dark shapes, my father’s parents, visiting when I was a child.
I shall assume this memory is false, that I don’t remember her. Though I do remember well having a middle name which I discarded as soon as I was able to, and that throughout, while branded with it had no idea why my father would have chosen such a name. Knowing myself somewhat, and my tendency for honesty despite the consequences, I would have said, when various teachers laughingly asked in front of the class how I came to be blessed with such a concoction, “My father gave it to me, it’s Turkish” and suffered yet more.
So I discover myself to be an interloper. Certainly the grandchild of a Muslim woman, certainly named because of her and this fact, fairly certain she was from Turkey, but whether Turkish in fact or just passing through, perhaps Kurdish, or even Central Asian, I have no idea. Her name also, a blank.
I see these old women in Neukölln and Wedding and am reminded of her. I wonder if she would be like them. I wonder how it would have been growing up if not separated by hemispheres, I wonder more flightingly if by some small shift of chance I would nonetheless be in Berlin, but as the daughter of Gästarbeiterin, and perhaps wear a hijab as the girls of these Kieze sometimes do.
The conversations I’ve had in Berlin and Brussels about Muslims, immigration have often left me troubled. Hearing tropes that sound suspiciously unfriendly yet unable to grasp the argument or conditions that led to such views even among artists. Unable to provide a convincing riposte outside of my experiences in Australia, and knowing also the pressing need to be able to argue forcefully against the easy racisim that pervades the public discussion reduced to ‘Islam in Europe’. Of course I began reading. I found Katherine Pratt Ewing’s Stolen Honor – Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin in St George’s, an impulse purchase. Butler, Said, anthropology, and naturally I am drawn in, though equally in other respects problematic. But there is no one single answer.
It is perhaps that it is a question in the first place that it is a problem. The Muslim question. The Turkish question. Here in Brussels now – and across Europe even in Turkey – the hijab, niqab, burqa question.
I shall not be morally relativist here. It is the fundamental point of human rights to not be relativist; it is to be absolutist, to say, “Here is the minimum acceptable”, to say these things are not open to negotiation.
It is not the role of the government to decide how a woman might dress. It is not the role of a government to place itself in the position of proxy for a woman’s voice, therein stating whether such dress is choice or not. It is not the role of a government to use a woman’s body as the site on an ideological battle. It is not the role of the government to use the instrument of law in the name of women’s rights to impose a diminishment of those rights upon the very subject of their supposed emancipation.
I say this as a feminist. I say this as a woman, as a granddaughter of a Muslim woman, as an atheist, as a queer.